Archive for May, 2006

Adventures in Amplitude Modulation – Part 18

Tuesday, May 30th, 2006

1103_2 Listening to the old broadcast bands for information, sport or adventure isn’t so popular in this U.S. these days, for many reasons. And since I’ve started writing these posts, I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve talked to about DXing who can more than feign an interest in listening to lo-fi audio signals from faraway places. I mean, if you experience your media from cable TV and/or through a speedy multimedia computer with a broadband connection, why should you care about complicated radios that offer sputtering static, strange noises, and people speaking in all sorts of languages you don’t understand?

For better or worse, some of us still have fun with this old technology. While it’s easy to be overwhelmed by so MUCH radio content available today– besides AM & FM, there’s internet and satellite radio and many thousands of podcasts flooding the mediasphere every week. However, there’s a minority out here who continue to listen to radio the hard way and test the capabilities of our receivers. And with shortwave, it’s remains the only way to hear direct communications from distant countries without somehow going through some corporate communication infrastructure. And you throw in the entertainment value of Christian kooks who have infested the U.S. shortwave frequencies, and a few clandestine operators and shortwave pirates lurking about, you’ve got an eclectic, and often exotic, mix of programming to sample that you’d probably never hear any other way. And it’s important to mention that what has become a fringe medium in America, is still a very popular and important way to hear news, information and music in the developing world.

Tia During the cold war, back in the days before the world wide web, there was no way to hear the OTHER side, except on shortwave. Now we have other strange political and economic forces that are again dividing up our world, and creating many “others” who have disagreements with the west, especially the U.S. (For example, the English language programming on Radio Habana Cuba is NOT available on the internet.) If you REALLY want to balance your news and information intake these days, shortwave is STILL a good way to go. And your listening habits will not be logged or noticed by John Poindexter, or any of his friends. Something to think about.

And me? I’m still fooling around with my new receiver, a Degen 1103. I was finally was able to record a couple of decent shortwave dial scans with it. Not fascinating samples of international broadcasting, but viable samples of shortwave reception from the middle of this massive megalopolis. Scroll down for some MP3s from a scan of the 41 meter band from last Friday.

Dx_guy_1 It’s been several months since I’ve had a chance to do some DXing without struggling with the dense radio noise floor of city life. But next weekend I’m going to spend a couple days 100 miles or so north of New York, and I look forward to lots of silence between frequencies and hopefully pulling in some stations I’ve never heard before.

And in this dial scan you’ll hear some of the RF noise you can’t escape on AM and shortwave around here. After a couple weeks of playing with this portable, I can tell you that twirling the tuning knob of the Degen 1103 IS similar to an analog setup. However, as I mentioned in the last post there are some quirky digital artifacts audible as you move through the numbers. And what I’ve also noticed is that some RF noise is just WORSE with this digital receiver. It’s like a nasty buzz or roar coming out of the speaker gets an added jagged digital edge that even grates on MY nerves, and I’m fairly immune to the static, buzzes and crashes inherent in shortwave listening.

Dx_guy_2 All that said, there have been some nights when I’ve had a few minutes to step outside and quickly skip through the bands, and this little Degen just throbs with reception across the dial. It’ll be nice to sit out on that porch upstate and take some time to find out what’s out there.

And lastly, I’d like to solicit some readers of this blog for some audio content. While I’ll continue to post my own radio recordings here, I’d like to have a wider variety to offer. If you have some interesting shortwave or AM DX recordings to share OR have the ability to make some I might be able to use here, please send me an email. Off the top of my head, here’s some of the kinds of radio recordings I’d be very interested in checking out for possible inclusion here:

1. Historic shortwave recordings. Any compelling shortwave radio from the past, especially from the cold war era and before. Strange, historic, or rare recordings would be nice, but not necessary. Please include ID’s of stations or logs if you have them.

2. Interesing shortwave or AM radio (or long wave) recordings from around the country or the world. ID’s or logs would be very helpful. Let me know what you have, or can get.

3. Bandscans. Anybody with a decent receiver who can scan the bands from other parts of the country or the world, it would be great if you could offer a sampling of what can be heard where you are, or have been. I would prefer if you would spend some time on interesting broadcasts you come across, and again logs for these recordings would be ideal. I’d like to get some AM dial scans of the AM dial from other areas of North America especially. It would be nice to get complete journey’s of the dial, from 530 or 540, up toward 1700 kHz. Contact me if you have questions or ideas. Any dial scans from decades ago would be VERY welcome here.

Dx_guy_3 I can’t promise I’ll use anything for sure, but it would be great if you could offer your listening experiences for consideration. Ideally, I’d like it to be in an mp3 format I could snatch from you over the internet, but CD’s or cassettes via snail mail would be fine as well. If I could just get even a few DXers to regularly contribute it would really add a lot to this little funhouse. I’ll certainly credit you if I post your recordings. If you think you might be able to offer something, please DO send me an email.

Meanwhile, here’s a partial scan of the 41 meter band I recorded in Jersey City last Friday just after 7 p.m. (2300 UTC). There is some raw noise from time to time and reception wasn’t fantastic, but there was a variety of international content in between the domestic bible bangers. And here’s what it sounded like…

Segment 1 – 31 Meter Band 05-26-06  16:14

(download)

9330 – WBCQ – “The Good Friends Network”

And a big chorus of Caucasian hallelujah to you too!.

Kol_small_19345 – KOL Israel

In Hebrew. "Nel blu dipinto di blu" (Volare) however, is definitely Italian. I’m surprised I don’t hear more English content from Israel.

9355 – (unknown)

I thought this was the Catholics on EWTN, but it doesn’t sound like religious content. Russia broadcasts on this frequency as well. Any DXers or Spanish speakers have a clue on this one?

9370 – WTJC – The Fundamental Broadcasting Network

Oh boy. You hear this kind of thing a lot on Christian shortwave, a dramatization of bible “history.” Typically, these are “news” constructs, with a make-believe correspondent at the Adam_eve_snake crucifixion or something. But this is different. It’s a soap opera (or sitcom) set at the VERY beginning of humanity. And in this clip you’ll hear the first quarrel EVER. I guess that’s what can happen if you ascend to a higher state of existence– You can disagree. 

In mainstream monotheistic theology, it’s how we “fell from grace.” Apparently, Adam and Eve could have frolicked forever in happy-go-lucky ignorance, but a certain snake came along and led them to snack on the fruit that imparted them with the weighty knowledge of good and evil. Oops. I guess one way to piss off a power hungry supernatural being is just to get smarter.

The Gnostics, on the other hand, had a completely different interpretation of this story. They saw this act of rebellion against god as the first act of human salvation against a cruel and oppressive creator. And the snake– a GOOD guy. While I don’t personally look for guidance from bible myths and allegories, the Gnostic interpretation of this narrative makes a lot more sense to me.

As I said, these reenactments are popular fodder on religious shortwave stations. I guess these religious dramas make the bible more REAL for believers. And you wondered why the fundamentalists are so frightened by that DaVinci code movie. Fictional entertainment. It’s powerful stuff.

And my god, the AWFUL noise scanning out of this frequency.

9415 – Radio Prague

VERY faint. A song and a lotta noise. Not really listenable.

Vog 9420 – Voice of Greece.

A slightly anthemic pop song. Female singer. Greek I assume.

9500 – Radio Bulgaria

Extremely faint. Scanned right past it.

9525 – Radio Netherlands

With all the monks and reverb that popey sound in the background, I figured it was EWTN. But, perhaps it’s a documentary feature on Catholics. I don’t know, but I think it’s Dutch.

9535 – Radio Exterior de Espana

Sounds like news, delivered at a rapid pace in Spanish.

9545 – Deutsche Welle

The same as above, in German.

Segment 2 – 31 Meter Band 05-26-06  12:17

(download)

9700 – Radio Bulgaria

Commentary in English. A bit muddy and a lot of fading.

Rdp 9715 – Radiodifusao Portuguesa

Loud and clear. A cheery pop number. Sounds like the 1980′s. A funky little toe-tapper with complimentary shortwave phasing effects.

9725 – Gene Scott

Mr. Scott bragging about his huge broadcasting presence. This particular broadcast is coming from Costa Rica, by the way.

Although Gene Scott no longer walks the Earth, he seems to have found immortality on shortwave. As long as the money keeps coming in.

Ouch! The NOISE after moving past this frequency is nasty.

9840 – WHRI (World Harvest Radio) – Radio Liberty

Old Stanley Montieth. Barely readable.

9855 – Radio Kuwait

A drama of some kind, in Arabic. I wonder if snakes are involved?

Rv_1 9875 – Radio Vilnius

The beginning of the Friday English language program from Lithuania. This is old fashioned international broadcasting. Quite listenable, with a little throbbing as the radio waves bounce over the Atlantic. In general, countries that used be part of the eastern bloc are more likely to maintain an English language service to North America than the rest of Europe.

The news focuses on an ongoing Lithuanian corruption scandal. I guess we have more in common with the E.U. than I thought.

9895 – Radio Netherlands

In Spanish…

9925 – Hrvatska Radio

Sony_sw_1Croatian folk rock, I guess. Spooky with a flute.

9975 – EWTN

Everything you need to become a do-it-yourself Catholic apologist by simply utilizing your internet browser. A very slick promo.

9985 – WYFR (Family Radio)

Just a few seconds of Protestant profundity, prophets and persecution. It’s palpable.

That’s it for now. Ane to those of you who have linked to this site, I thank you. I really appreciate it.

As usual, thanks for listening.

(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)

Adventures In Amplitude Modulation – Part 17

Tuesday, May 16th, 2006

Postage_1 Well, my Degen radio finally arrived from China this week. And I do like it. At the bottom of this post you’ll find a few samples of shortwave reception I snagged with it on Sunday, but first I’ll offer a few first impressions of the radio itself.

As I mentioned in my last DX post, I’ve long been eyeing this shortwave portable on the internet for over a year, and finally decided to go ahead and order one. A recent invention, the Degen 1103 is the same basic radio as the Kaito 1103 that’s marketed here in the states. After paying shipping and insurance from China via ebay, the Degen is still twenty bucks cheaper than the Kaito version. And I’m all for that.

After coming across so many fawning reviews online, I was already convinced that this radio was probably going to be a good performer. It is. That much I could tell from the moment I turned it on. Not only is it sensitive, but the digital tuning is as graceful as you’re going to find on a radio at this price. Of course, scanning the band isn’t quite as organic as using an analog tuner, but it’s damn close.

After pulling it out of the box in the early afternoon I tuned to medium wave and found a couple of fringe AM stations I hadn’t noticed before. And although I have picked up WPHT at 1210 in Philadelphia here in New York during the day before, the Degen also picked up WBZ in Boston at 1030 just past one in the afternoon. Impressive. Then later in the early evening, I found Kuwait and Ukraine coming in clean and strong on shortwave, along with plenty of other stations I didn’t bother to log.

De1103_display_1 Because propagation on AM and SW varies so much, if you’re going to dig into a section of the radio band to explore what’s out there, it’s good to be able to sample some bands first to find out where the action is. Unlike playing with an analog set, you can’t whip through the dial and pick out signals quite as quickly with the 1103. But even when I speed though the numbers at top speed I do get a sense that I’m hearing a viable sample of each 1 kHz stop along the way. Which is unlike my other digital portable (a Sangean ATS-505) where it takes a fraction of a second for each step to reveal itself. Zooming through a band at a rapid pace yields a bunch of useless silence. As reader Ralph noted on a earlier post, high end digital receivers have a much greater resolution (smaller “steps") and scanning is practically the same as using an analog rig. But for eighty (to a hundred) bucks this radio gets the job done.

The pseudo analog tuning display isn’t necessary, but it does give you a helpful visual roadmap of where you’re at. I do wish the numerical readout was a little larger. This is where the BCL-2000 is better in low-light or in the dark. The display is brighter and numbers are larger. Also the “jog dial” which you use to tune the DE1103 also serves a number of functions, most notably the volume control. It takes a minute to get used to, but I didn’t find it nearly as annoying as other reviewers did. As far as actual scanning, going through the dial can yield a mild chirp between steps if you’re passing a number of active frequencies. In general, scanning slowly solves this digital annoyance, but not completely.

E51103 I also should note that it seems the same basic radio with a big fat numerical readout instead of an extensive analog dial simulation is now available. It’s the Eton E5 (which was supposed to be released as the Degen 1106, but they sold the design to Eton). From what I’ve read, it’s the same basic receiver as the Degen 1103 with a more traditional shortwave radio layout and has more presets available. However, the E5 lists for around $150 and to me those features aren’t worth an extra seventy bucks.

Wqewdj_jazzyjenn As I’ve noted before, I live very close to a booming clear channel AM station, WQEW at 1560 kHz. On other radios I have here (especially the BCL-2000), nearby frequencies are wiped out by WQEW. With the 1103 I can now hear WWKB at 1520 in Buffalo and WCKY at 1530 in Cincinnati. Also the image of WQEW blasts in on 650 kHz on the BCL. With the Degen I haven’t been able to pull in WSM in Nashville there yet, but WQEW’s Radio Disney bullshit doesn’t haunt that frequency on the Degen. I also heard a listenable read of WLS at 890 in Chicago at night, which is a real feat considering the wide swath of bandwidth WCBS (at 880) grabs here in the city.

So, I look forward to taking this little unit away from the city and hearing what I can DX under better conditions. My apartment is an RF nightmare. I tried plugging in an external antenna (the radio comes with a LONG one) and was totally frustrated by how the just pulled in MORE noise. That night I also found out that the little battery charger for my digital camera blasts a nasty pulse on the 41 meter band.

De1103_1 Bottom line, I’m already recommending the Degen (or Kaito) 1103 to readers who might be thinking about purchasing a relatively inexpensive shortwave radio. From what I can tell, before now you couldn’t purchase a new radio with this kind of overall performance for near this price. The BCL radios are nice, and I do recommend them as well, but I have to admit that while I like some features (notably analog tuning with an easy to see digital display and an RF gain control) A LOT, I’m more enchanted by what the BCL radios could or should do rather than the actual experience of how it performs in real conditions. Let’s hope later models are an improvement.

While I picked up a some interesting stuff playing around with the Degen this weekend, I wasn’t able to record a dial scan I’d want to present here. Reception wasn’t what it was a day or two before and the weather here in the northeast has been really lousy. There was plenty of lightning out over the horizon playing havoc with the AM and shortwave bands. On Sunday night (Mother’s Day) there was no rain here, so a little after eight in the evening I sat on my front stoop flipping through the 41 meter band and caught a few broadcasts I thought I’d share. For the first time I picked up a couple of shortwave pirate broadcasters, which was almost exciting. At least for me.

Hopefully over the next couple weeks I’ll be able to offer a dial scan or two more representative of what the 1103 can really do. But for now, this post offers four radio samples which represent the DIY side of shortwave. Some (or all) of this programming probably originates from the homes of the broadcasters themselves. While much of the shortwave you’ll pick up in the states is major international stations and Christian U.S. goofballs, there is more to be heard.

Here’s the audio…

6925 – The Voice of Mike Gaukin  3:17

(download)

Ssb_book This is an SSB (or sideband, broadcast). Again, I don’t want to get into too much technical radio talk, but sideband is different than typical amplitude modulation, or AM broadcasting. From what I understand, the signal lacks a “carrier” and is more “efficient in its use of electrical power and bandwidth” than AM. In other words, you get more bang for your buck on the transmitter end, with the signal having a greater reach with less power. It’s a favorite method of broadcasting for hams and radio pirates. And this is most certainly pirate programming.

While any shortwave can receive an SSB signal, but to be able to make any sense of it you need to have a radio with an SSB or BFO feature. When you tune one of those muffled and/or buzzy voices, switch on the SSB capability and “clarify” the station with a tuning knob until the voice starts to sound human. The Degen 1103 and my Panasonic RF-2200 both have this feature, the BCL radios do not. Without it you do miss some of what’s available on the dial.

Although I’ve heard a number of recordings of shortwave pirates this is the first one I’ve come across that I recognized was one (Of course, often I wasn’t able to access an SSB signal). Every shortwave pirate recording I’ve heard always sounds like crap as far as signal quality, and this one was no exception. It starts out with that “bound and gagged” sound of untreated SSB, then when I push the SSB button and tweak the wheel it quickly clears up.

It starts out with a juvenile Opie and Anthony phone prank, which I gather involves calls to (auto parts?) stores and repeating the word “buttplug” over and over again with a variety of intonations. This confuses and frustrates the store clerks on other end of the line, and well.. hilarity ensues. Oh, your sides will ache…

Fag_hater Anyway, then a male voices announces that he is “The Voice of Mike Gaukin” as well as “a gay faggot.” (Which is I gather must be the opposite of a straight faggot.) The there are references to “Kracker Radio” and another pirate group (I guess?) “The Bowling League.” And to add to the fun, the announcer has electronically mutated his voice, and this could fool you into thinking you haven’t correctly tuned into the sideband. I guess there’s all sorts of ways to have fun.

I don’t get capture much of this “program.” Just over a minute here. At 8:23 EDT (0023 UTC) it’s all over and the static takes over. So, who is Mike Gaukin and why is he investing his time and electricity to tell the world about his gay faggotry? Well, some internet searches bring up a number of references to the “Voice of Mike Gaukin” pirate broadcast. And from the time I’ve spent browsing around, it seems that Michael Gaukin is a real guy and “Kracker” of Kracker Radio doesn’t like him very much, and has an ongoing slander campaign going online and on the radio. Here’s an alleged rap sheet on Gaukin from Kracker’s site.

Or maybe there’s something totally different going on. I have no idea. It’s all a bit too teenage boy for my taste. But if you want to dig deeper into the Mike Gaukin mystery, you can start here or here.

6950 – Kracker Radio  4:01

(download)

Pigbanner_2 Then a few quick nudges of the knob and I’ve found Mr. Kracker himself. This pirate broadcast is straight ahead AM and not sideband. Electric guitar with an effects pedal. Then an electronically tweaked voice which sounds suspiciously identical to the Voice of Mike Gaukin. Although it’s not easy to sort out the collage-ish interlude between songs, references to penises and marijuana are evident. Then it’s King Missile and “Detachable Penis,” which I cut off here when the storm static was eating up the signal.

I’ve read that this little piece of property on the 41 meter band is quite popular with shortwave pirates. Weekends (and perhaps holidays) are supposedly good times to look for them. I’m not totally sure if these two broadcasts are from the same person, or just related persons, but the content is the same junior-high wiener wagging fun.

But, isn’t it something? Young guys with some radio equipment more or less have access to the world airwaves and it’s all about their little dangling dachshunds and their favorite sphincter muscle. Sheesh. I thought the Christians were like broken records.

I’d guess both of these pirate broadcasts originate from somewhere in Ohio.

7240 – Southern Ham Operator  1:07

(download)

Ham_radio_operator Again, this is SSB and you can clearly hear the process of tuning in a sideband signal. Ham (or amateur) radio is a great broadcasting tradition– usually guys in their gadget rooms filled with legal radio equipment (and licenses) who chat among themselves on specific frequencies, sometimes talking to fellow hams around the globe. Not all use sideband, but most do. The conversations are often a bit boring and from what I’ve heard there’s a lot of discussion about the trivial details and functions of their radio equipment, or just small talk about what’s going on around the house that day.

That said, hams also provide an important free-standing network of communication around the country and the world. It’s not all fooling around.

This clip is awful short. Just a good-bye really. And the accent? I think either Tennessee or the Carolinas. Of course, he could be broadcasting from anywhere, probably in the eastern U.S.

7415 – WBCQRadio NewYork International  19:31

(download)

It’s WBCQ again, the most creatively programmed shortwave station in America. Yes, there are some scary jesusmongers and right-wing freaks on WBCQ too, but there’s also some entertaining talk and music programming for a change, especially on their 7415 kHz signal.

Johnny_1 This is Johnny Lightning’s “Radio NewYork International,” a Sunday Night talk and comedy show originating live from Brooklyn. I don’t know how he gets the audio up to the transmitter in Maine, but I imagine it’s via a phone line. Johnny takes calls and chats and rants and generally seems to have a great time every Sunday night.

The name of the show comes from the original Radio NewYork International, an offshore pirate station in the late 80′s (run by WBCQ head honcho Allan Weiner, Mr. Lightning and others) located on a ship off Long Island which the FCC shut down in 1988.

RNI is a solid four hours of homegrown radio, with lots of bits and jingles and some serious issues occasionally broached amid all the silliness. It’s a New York City radio broadcast to the world and it’s too bad more people in the city don’t even know it exists. It’s a freewheeling (and frequently manic) onslaught of opinion, stories and bad jokes, and like some of the best shows on WBCQ it’s as human and entertaining as American shortwave radio gets these days. In this sample you get almost twenty minutes.

Thanks for listening.

(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)

Air America vs. Reality – Part 2

Saturday, May 6th, 2006

Air America reminds me of Hillary Clinton. Why? Because both are so despised by the right-wing media machineFrankenclinton that it makes you feel you’re in bed with the theocrat-warmonger zombies just to utter any criticism of either in public. However, there’s a really big difference between folks who put Bush, the Republican party and the cloud being above all logic or morals and everybody else. Some people actually use reasoning skills and have opinions that don’t follow lock-step dogma and aren’t interested in sycophancy to raw Machiavellian power.  And this is a big dilemma for most folks who aren’t on the far right, is that we DIFFER on issues and ideas and that is often used against us.

I’ve never really had much of an opinion of any previous American “First Ladies,” (except a bit of sympathy for Pat Nixon), but the spew of bile from the right against Hillary Clinton during her husband’s administration did make me come to her defense over the years. And when she talked about a “vast right wing conspiracy” that morning on the Today Show I thought she was brave to say it. (Read David Brock’s “Blinded By The Right” to hear how right she was from one of the actual “conspirators” of that era). But since that time, her election and subsequent cowardice in not standing up to the Iraq War in the Senate has changed my mind completely. Rush Limbaugh is obviously a scumbag, but no matter how much he trashes Clinton I’m no longer a fan. And NOWI read that ultra right-wing ultra media mogul Rupert Murdoch is hosting a goddamn fundraiser for her re-election to the Senate in July. Ouch.

Aa_oreilly If Mrs. Clinton happens to get the Democratic nomination for the Presidency in 2008 I may likely hold my nose and press her lever (and I pray it IS still a lever), but I do hope that’s not the choice we’re given.

And if you’ve followed the news stream on Air America over the last couple years, there’s been a disturbing trend in the criticism of the network, ESPECIALLY online. Instead of just denouncing content, or questioning the opinions offered on Air America, there’s always been a loud choir of voices in the media predicting (and cheering for) the demise of the network. And some wingnuts, like Bill O’Reilly, have even called for the arrest of Air America hosts and/or employees. You know, just the fact that these morons hate Air America so much they want to destroy it tells you Air America MUST be doing something right.

Michaels_cover And Air America has done a number of things right. First off, they’ve offered a “patch” of sorts on the post-Fairness Doctrine talk radio environment. Before the launch or Air America there were hundreds of stations featuring right wing talkers and not one commercial talk outlet offering liberal talk programming through their broadcast day. Now there are dozens, with new “progressive talk” stations coming online all the time. And to the surprise of many, Air America’s biggest partner in the spread of the lefty talk format across the country has been Clear Channel Communications– a corporation that owns plenty of conservative talk stations as well AND some of the biggest right-wing programs in the U.S. (including Limbaugh).

Enter Randy Michaels. The former head of Clear Channel hasn’t missed the rapid growth of the liberal talk format fostered by his old company. If you had to pick one word to describe Mr. Michaels, “opportunist” might best fit the bill. Other adjectives that accurately describe Michaels– tenacious, outrageous, and except for falling from the Clear Channel throne– very successful. Although Air America continues to bleed cash, their strategy of cultivating left-wing talk stations across the country isn’t necessarily a losing proposition. If Randy Michaels has staked his career comeback on the format, there’s probably a lot of money yet to be made in progressive talk radio.

Pig_sticker You can be sure of one thing, snatching WLIB away from Air America was a brilliant and strategic move for Michaels’ new company “Product First.” Certainly purchasing “The Ed Shultz Show” (now the most popular liberal talk show in the U.S.) immediately put his new progressive talk radio enterprise on the map, but taking control of Air America’s flagship station (and their only outlet in the biggest radio market in the country) puts P1 in an incredibly favorable position in a number of ways. And when it comes to the radio business, there’s no one better than Randy Michaels at sizing up the competition and then audaciously destroying or assimilating them. (For a good example of Michaels’ lack of mercy, check out this timeline on how quickly Jacor’s “Power Pig” dispatched Tampa’s Q-105 in a matter of months in late 1980′s.) And when it comes to lefty talk, Air America is the ONLY competition for Michaels to destroy or absorb. And in one swift move he’s put his one competitor, which is already in trouble, into a much weaker position AND provided his company with a New York City radio outpost. Amazing.

Franken_sketch The name of Michaels’ new company is telling. Air America came out of the box as a massive experiment, hitting the airwaves with a half a dozen shows at once, most featuring hosts with no radio experience. It was a big splash in the radio industry back in 2004, and a lot of the buzz was generated by putting TV comedy talent on the air like Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo. However, out of the original Air America lineup only one program was a proven radio product with a radio vet as host– The Randi Rhodes Show. In other words, politics and TV comedy came first for Air America, and the hope was that because they believed themselves to be on the right side politically (and they were going to have lots of witty funny bits) would naturally prove itself viable in the market place. The product itself did not come first. Hope did. And in the scheme of things that hasn’t worked out so well.

Losing WLIB is going to drag Air America into the cold harsh light of reality and it’s going to hurt. The challenge of a radio brute like Randy Michaels is either going to force Air America to realign their vision and adjust their business model toward profitability or it may be the beginning of the end.

If you had been listening to WLIB here in New York over the last year, you wouldn’t have to read all the internet rumors and allegations to figure out Air America was in big financial trouble– Putting the yuppie idiocy of ABC’s Satellite Sisters in place of Air America’s late night angry man, Mike Malloy, and selling their weekend day slots on WLIB to shows about sports, food and money management. These were obviously stopgap measures to slam together enough cash to keep the rest of their programming on WLIB. Although Air America had a long term agreement with Inner City to camp out on WLIB’s frequency for years, it was undoubtedly the fact that they weren’t able to make their payments to the owners of WLIB that gave Michaels his opportunity to step in.

Aa As I said last week, the one option nobody has mentioned is the possiblity that Air America might somehow join forces with Michaels. However, this would mean that the cold calculation of the former head of Jacor and Clear Channel would drastically alter Air America programming. But if they keep bleeding cash, it’s hard to see how they’re going to have much choice if they’re going to survive at all.

I don’t know how this is all going to pan out. And I’m certainly only guessing that Air America might consider handing over control of the network to Michaels in some way. But I’d bet something like that is on the table right now. The only official statement from Air America is a bit cryptic. A rep told the Daily News that the network "will not go silent on the New York City airwaves." Whatever happens, I have a feeling that over the next few weeks the course of talk radio history will take a turn behind closed doors somewhere on the island of Manhattan.

Meanwhile, as long time observer of the talk radio scene, as well as a fan of some the programming Air America has put out over the last couple of years, I offer the network my personal suggestions on what could be done to tighten and tweak their programming, and actually put the “product” ahead of the purpose. And if Randy Michaels actually gets his hands on the helm of Air America, I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two of these suggestions actually come to pass. However, I’d bet he’ll be less charitable.

1. Ease Out Al Franken

Stuartsmalley_1 That’s right. I know it’s blasphemy, but despite Franken’s success as a liberal author the rubber faced comedian doesn’t cut it on the radio. What’s worse is how expensive it is for Air America to keep the TV funnyman as their mascot. It’s been reported that Franken drains between one and two million bucks a year out of the Air America coffers, and with his production staff, writers and researchers the total cost for the Al Franken Show accounts for over half of Air America’s programming payroll. Bringing in a left-wing radio legend like Neil Rogers would have cost only a fraction of that amount, and obviously would have been a much smarter move. And now Air America has invested in a Minnesota studio for Franken as he explores a possible Senate run there in 2008. Why blow all that cash on somebody who’s likely to split in a year or two anyway? It’s absurd.

Outside of his books, nothing Franken’s done on his own has been overtly successful? Ever seen that Stuart Smalley movie? Me neither. However I have heard Al repeat the same lame jokes literally DOZENS of times on his show. While Franken has a great roster of regular guests, it’s still not enough to carry the show. The idea of putting a well-known TV comic turned lefty author on the radio might have looked good on the drawing board, it’s hasn’t created much good radio and to be honest it’s not been all that funny either. And without Katherine Lanpher to keep things rolling and hold Franken’s expansive ego in check, it’s been a painful listen at best.

The last thing I wanna do is throw my lot in with the knuckle-dragging hoards of Franken haters. I hope he keeps writing books and fighting the good fight. He’s still capable of some funny TV moments, and he might even make a good Senator. But really– Air America should invest all that cash into the development of new programming and paying off their debts. If he’ll take it, give Franken a weekend yuk-it-up talk show and a drastically reduced salary, or cut him loose when the contract allows. Have mercy.

2. Put Thom Hartmann Into The Regular Network Lineup

Hartmann The obvious replacement for Franken. Hartmann continues to grow as a talk host. He’s brilliant, knowledgeable, and runs a tight fast-paced show. Hartmann puts current events into historical perspective, and has an amazing memory and a sense of fair play that makes him the perfect foil for the challenges of right wing callers. Air America now owns his program, but offers it in syndication outside of their regular lineup. It’s always a pleasure (and often a relief) to hear Hartmann fill in for other hosts on the network. I’ve always assumed that the syndication deal put him in the bullpen to fill the next gap in their weekday schedule. I hope that’s true.

3. Cut Randi Rhodes Down To Three Hours, Please

From what I’ve heard, Rhodes has been the biggest ratings success so far on the network. That’s great. Before Air America existed, I listened to Rhodes on the internet and was happy to hear her taking on the right wing noise machine loudly and proudly. I’m not convinced that she’s actually changed, and perhaps my ears are burned out, but I don’t have the patience to take in her show every afternoon these days. And FOUR hours! That’s just TOO much Randi.

Rhodes_beer Yes, she’s usually quite up to speed on current events and the issues and impassioned to be sure. But she’s also shrill and repeats her points so many times in one program that your brain can go numb. And no matter what the issue or topic, it becomes tiresome to hear Randi talk all about Randi whenever she gets a chance. She never mentions the 2000 election without noting that she was ACTUALLY in Florida during the vote controversy there. And if she’s ever met a politician, she’ll be sure to tell you about it every time their name comes up. And if some event coincides with some special day in the life of Randi, you’ll hear about it. Whether it’s a penchant for bragging, or just insecurity, it’s tough to hear Rhodes blow her own horn so loudly everyday. At least it is for me. I’ll admit, she is a pro, but I don’t need her to remind me anymore. C’mon, four hours is just plain overkill.

4. Make “The Majority Report” A Weekly Show, Or Just Get Rid Of It

Majority_report_2 When I first heard Sam Seder and Janeane Garofalo host this show, it hurt. I mean, it was basically a spasmodic rendition of a college radio political opinion show. I wanted it to get better. It hasn’t.

Okay, I kinda like the new wave-punk bumper music, and the fact that they feature some high-profile lefty bloggers and occasionally have interesting musical acts. But when the content isn’t formed around a good guest, this show is just a lot of panting and spewing and snarky repartee that never seems to grow up. An hour or two in a weekend slot could be bearable, but for the life of me I can’t understand why this show has lasted over two years like this.

5. Give Marc Maron A Prime Night Slot, Now!

Marc_maron Maron was the ONLY non-radio talent who really grew into the medium in the great experiment of Air America’s opening programming lineup. Morning Sedition, the show he hosted with Mark Riley evolved into a funny and unpredictable talk show that covered important issues, made you laugh, and never took itself too seriously. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, cancelling Morning Sedition was a bonehead move.

However, the HUGE internet wave of anger over this decision didn’t go totally unnoticed by Air America. No doubt that’s the only reason Maron got his own program at the Air America affiliate in L.A. And now The Marc Maron Show is not only the best weekday program in the Air America lineup, and it’s also the only one that’s only on ONE radio station. The network keeps promising to put him on their network roster, but several roll out dates have passed and Maron’s not happy that he’s left languishing on one California station. Read the latest here.

I say it’s simple. Give Maron the Majority Report slot. What are they waiting for? The money would be better spent to pay out Garofalo for the rest of her contract then to let her psychoanalyze right wing losers and discuss the liposuction on her chin or the trying tooth bleaching procedures TV roles require. Please.

While I’ve got more notes in front of me on changes I’d like to hear on Air America, I think I’ll cut it off here and wait to see what happens with WLIB in New York this summer. While I don’t particularly like commercials themselves, even in this era of deregulation and mega-mergers there’s still something exciting and vital about commercial radio which is almost impossible to find in public and community radio. Commercial radio HAS to prove itself viable in the marketplace, one way or another. If the radio product itself isn’t powerful, efficient and appealing in some populist way, it will not last. The Air America brain trust needs some of what makes a guy like Randy Michaels tick. I wonder if they can figure that out before it’s too late?

(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)

Air America vs. Reality – Part 1

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2006

Neil_2 A little over two years ago, talk radio legend Neil Rogers offered his appraisal of the impending launch of Air America, a new liberal talk radio network.  "I wish them luck,” he said, “But I don’t see it succeeding… Hard-core conservatives gather around the radio to listen to Rush. Liberals are too busy having a life for that."

Was Neil right?

Maybe. Maybe not. While it seems that liberal or “progressive” talk radio has a discernable future in AM talk radio, whether the network that brought the idea into the mainstream can survive is whole ‘nother question.

Air America was founded in a flurry of idealism born out of frustration. In fact, it’s safe to say that without the mass proliferation of right wing radio that burgeoned during the 1990′s there never would have been an Air America at all. Air America was a reaction. A thoughtful one. However, much of the idealism has given way to damage control, inaction and a general spirit of compromise. Especially here in New York.

Wlib_1 Air America is losing their grasp on WLIB here in New York City. This story was reported as gossip in early April, and then denied by the involved parties until the other day. Now it’s true, and this is a HUGE disaster for the Network. They had a long-term lease with WLIB’s owners (Inner City Broadcasting Corporation), but apparently Air America screwed up somehow and Inner City took advantage of some clause in their contract and opted out of the whole deal. Oops. Wonder how that happened?

Dvd Money. It’s gotta be money. As documented in HBO’s “Left of the Dial” (Available on DVD and worth watching, by the way), Air America jumped out of the box with a rat CEO who quickly disappeared and left the network in woeful financial straits. It’s a good guess that despite minor victories and plenty of accolades over the last couple of years, Air America has yet to prove itself as a profitable venture. The radio grapevine here in New York has been ripe with tales of financial hardship at the network for a long time.

When Air America launched, it was far from perfect as a product. But for talk radio listeners who were angered and sickened by profusion of right wing blabbermouths the event was exhilarating. And with the infusion of TV comedy types (especially Comedy Central vets) into the mix, Air America was immediately different and even entertaining at times. But that was 2004.

The creative team who lined up the initial talent roster (Shelley Lewis and Lizz Winstead) are long gone now. The first six hours of the initial Air America line-up were experimental in that they each featured three hosts who had never worked together, and only one of each trio had actually done radio before. The first few months were rough as both tri-ego programs attempted to find a balance and chemistry between the hosts themselves, and for each show to establish a rhythm and sense of itself.

Bottom line, one show gelled the other never did. “Unfiltered,” wasn’t a horrible program, but it was never a great one. Hosted by Winstead herself with Chuck D. of Public Enemy and Rachel Maddow, the only one left on the air at the network is Maddow who now hosts her own show from 7 to 9 in the morning. The dissolution of Unfiltered occurred at the beginning of former music exec Danny Goldberg’s tenure as CEO of Air America, and as his first major programming decision plugged the hole in the lineup with something truly awful– “Springer On The Radio.”

Goldberg However, as I discussed in the pages of this blog months ago, the other half of the grand morning experiment at Air America did gel. After a few months, the radio/TV comedy alchemy produced a totally unique and often hilarious left-wing talk show– Morning Sedition. Comic Marc Maron teamed with local NYC radio voice Mark Riley was a rollicking idiosyncratic chunk of fun every morning. Riley provided the grounding for irreverent and manic Maron, who grew into a powerful radio talent in the daily grind of putting out the show. Apparently, Mr. Goldberg wasn’t amused. His next big programming decision at the network was to dump Morning Sedition as well.

In it’s place, you get an extended Rachel Maddow show (which was doubled from it’s previous one hour configuration) and a trimmed down version of Morning Sedition WITHOUT Marc Maron. And just like Al Franken without his former co-host Katherine Lanpher, Riley is left to banter with his production staff. And that’s how Air America sounds in general– less inspired and a feeling that decisions are being made with financial desperation trumping the willingness to take risks or invoke any real creative changes in the programming or in the business model of the network itself.

Randy_michaels And while Air America seems to be constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul to keep its fledgling left of center radio network together financially, former Clear Channel CEO Randy Michaels has been working behind the scenes slowly laying the groundwork (and gathering capital) for his own “progressive” talk empire– “Product First.” And in one bold stealth move, Michaels has suddenly gotten the upper hand and dealt a crippling blow to his competition by snatching away Air America’s flagship station, WLIB. Come September, WLIB will be under his control. What does this mean for Air America programming in New York? Good question.

Almost all the scenarios for Air America having a respectable presence in New York (the biggest radio market in the U.S.) after August are lousy. Even grim. There don’t seem to be any AM stations in New York with signals as good or better than WLIB that Air America are likely to be able to afford or convince to carry their programming. Not that WLIB is blowtorch, but they do cover the city and immediate area pretty well. And FM seems out of the question.

Then again, there is one obvious choice. They could STAY at WLIB, under the thumb of Randy Michaels.

Jacor The sneaky deal with Inner City is classic Randy Michaels. While he may have fallen from the highest position in all of radio, Michaels is still a force to be reckoned with. He’s high rolling wheeler-dealer motherfucker, and takes no prisoners. Before he was the head of Clear Channel, he ran a much smaller radio entity, Jacor Communications. At their peak, Jacor ruthlessly dominated four medium radio markets in the U.S. and were buying up more stations at a rapid pace. They also owned The Rush Limbaugh Show and Dr. Laura as well. And then when the company was absorbed by Clear Channel, Michaels and his Jacor gang actually TOOK OVER operation of Clear Channel.

Product First, or “P1" is the creation of Michaels and Stu Krane, who (get this) was involved in the national launch of the Rush Limbaugh program in the late 80′s. And last year they put their progressive talk radio network on the map by purchasing the most popular left-wing show NOT on Air America– The Ed Schultz Show. A bulky and boomy fellow who broadcasts out of North Dakota, Schultz is now on over 100 stations. A former right-winger who somehow went through some mystifying born again political experience, Schultz fashions himself as a manly progressive. He makes a point of bragging about his affection for guns and meat.

Wlib2 What’s Randy Michaels up to? The best guess is he’s up to his same old tricks– media domination. In the interim after he lost his gig as the king of Clear Channel and before he started a new company, Michaels was asked what he was going to next. “I was the architect of the largest radio group in the world, and I’m ready to move on to the next,” he boasted. And he borrowed a quote from the new CEO of Proctor and Gamble– “Change is inevitable…lead it.”

This is the irony of Air America. Left-wing talk, and maybe more importantly, talk radio that doesn’t follow the Republican talking points, is obviously a ripe for development and investment these days, but Air America’s leadership in the field hasn’t yielded a viable business model for the network itself. And Randy Michaels isn’t an idealist. He’s a businessman. And now Air America is getting the business, from Michaels.

Now over a barrel, Air America has to be in the middle of all sorts of discussions and/or negotiations right now to maintain some radio presence in New York City. The left-wing talk network is at a crossroads. Outside of some trimming and cutbacks, there’s been no rethinking of Air America’s programming or vision. Now, at least here in New York, there’s some hard choices to make and it will be interesting to see what Air America does next.

While I have no facts (or even unsubstantiated rumors) to back this up, I have a theory. Randy Michaels is a brilliant business strategist, and maybe this savvy chess move has given him the perfect opportunity to become the emperor of progressive talk radio in a hurry. What if Air America somehow merged with “Product First” and Michaels was put in charge? That would put the network in the hands of a proven predatory radio legend and would spell huge changes in Air America. And it might work.

Aar_2 Don’t get me wrong. I’m not really in favor of this idea (or fantasy), but Air America is certainly at a weak point and there doesn’t seem to be any good news on the horizon. They need leadership, and Michaels is a proven leader. Is he actually liberal? A very good question indeed. One thing’s for sure– he doesn’t fool around.

Whatever happens, I do predict some big changes at Air America in the next year. And in that time there will be some drastic changes in their programming, or they won’t be on the air at all. That’s a guess I stand by, for now.

(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)